The initial trickle of allegations against Jimmy Saville has steadily increased to a flood, and moved into areas far beyond the routine groping of young girls that, allegedly, was part of the perks of being in the music business in the 60s and 70s. If nothing else, the strength of the reaction to the stories now emerging shows that public attitudes towards sexual harassment in the workplace have undergone a sea-change since the days when pioneering female presenters on Radio One were accused of having something wrong with them if they objected to being fondled on air
But the ongoing distress of those who have suffered and witnessed abuse is real, and to comment on the change of social attitudes won’t make it go away. And the whole affair took a much nastier turn when allegations involving a notorious children’s home in Jersey and even the hospitals where Jimmy was well-known as a celebrity fundraiser began to surface. Is it really possible that the much-loved, apparently benevolent DJ actually fixed it so that he virtually bought himself access to vulnerable women? Unfortunately yes, and one of the complications is that human nature can rarely be separated into black and white definitions of evil. It could well be that Jimmy Saville compartmentalised his mind to such an extent that he saw no moral conflict between his charity work and his unfortunate addiction to under-age sex. After all, Adolf Hitler adored his dog and was apparently charming company. Evil people, inconveniently, can have likeable qualities.
What matters now is that the right questions are asked, and the right safeguards put in place. And that’s easier said than done, because nothing creates a press feeding frenzy and cries of righteous indignation than the thought of children being abused. Such things often lead to hurried and ineffective legislation. In 2002, two ten year old girls were murdered by Ian Huntley, who was working locally as a school caretaker, a job he never should have been allowed anywhere near if his previous criminal record had been properly disclosed. The legislation that has since been put in place has had the unfortunate effect of apparently criminalising many well-meaning and innocent people who volunteer to work with children, to the point where Scouts, Guides and similar organisations have faced severe shortages of staff. If it prevents another Soham double murder, that may be an appropriate price to pay. But it’s sobering to reflect that it would have done nothing to stop Jimmy Saville. To have a criminal record, you have to be charged and that charge has to stick. And for that to happen, your victims have to be believed and taken seriously. Again and again, strings were pulled, victims were silenced and charges were dropped. The combination of a serial abuser’s cunning and a culture of denial and celebrity worship proved to be a highly toxic one.
If the Saville affair is allowed to escalate into a witch hunt, the end product of all the noise and fury, and a possible flood of compensation claims, won’t benefit anyone except the lawyers that get involved. Wasting police time on unproveable leads now won’t make up for the institutional sexism and disbelief that silenced these women for so many years. I wouldn’t go as far as the lady who wrote to the BBC Radio 4 programme PM that “Every woman who lived through the 1970s has a groping story. Get over it.” Jimmy’s victims have suffered greatly and need the relief of their stories being vindicated at last. But bad legislation and an orgy of prurient interest won’t stop someone else getting away with similar behaviour; what does that is patient, low-key and committed education and chipping away at entrenched corruption and prejudice.
As David Cameron and his colleagues continue to dismantle the welfare state and complacently turn to charities to plug the gaps, it is worth reflecting that one of the reason we make fallible human beings into saints when they don’t deserve that honour is that truly altruistic individuals are thin on the ground. There’s a tendency for everyone to get sentimental about sick children in hospital. We shouldn’t let cheap emotion stop us asking how Jimmy was allowed to terrorise vulnerable people for so long, how he established such a strong hold over the institutions he was involved with that even staff who witnessed highly questionable behaviour were silenced, and whether philanthropy is always the safest and most efficient system for delivering public services.
- Jimmy Savile trawled ‘NHS children’s wards to find victims’ (standard.co.uk)
- Jimmy Savile: Broadmoor nurse’s claim adds to ‘cascade’ of abuse allegations (guardian.co.uk)